In 2010 demonstrations, protests, and riots swept through 20 countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East. The movements came to be known as the “Arab Spring.” Authorities responded with force, leading to innocent bloodshed, torture, and countless human rights violations. Despite the authoritative response, the demonstrations persisted. Once the dust had settled, pressure from below led to a combination of outcomes. In some countries, like Tunisia and Egypt, regimes toppled. In others, like Jordan and Oman, fundamental policy changes ensued. In the worst cases, like Iraq and Syria, civil wars began, both of which are ongoing. Each uprising was distinct, but they all shared one thing in common: They were led by young people. And in contrast with the uprisings of yesteryear, the young protagonists were not armed with AK-47s, but rather, with a unique combination of democratic convictions and an adept ability to use social media to promote their cause.
As I watch a Tropical Spring blossom in Nicaragua, I’ve begun to note parallels between what is happening here and what took place nearly a decade ago in the Arab world when an entire generation of young people took to the streets in protest of the oppressive regimes that governed their respective nations. Unrest in Nicaragua was spurred on April 16th by the government’s announcement of a poorly designed policy aimed at saving the nation’s social security system, INSS, from collapse. Yet, while the elderly where the first to take to the street, young students, who are not directly affected by the changes made to INSS, have been the main protagonists in Nicaragua’s tropical uprising. This intergenerational solidarity is symbolic of the breadth of the movement that is developing.
What is perhaps most surprising about the uprising in Nicaragua is the speed with which it has advanced. It’s mind-blowing how something that seemed impossible for so long now seems inevitable.
I’ve been traveling back and forth between Nicaragua and the U.S. for more than 14 years now, but I never would have predicted the events of the last several weeks. The first time I came to Nicaragua was in 2004 for a semester abroad. I came to study the 1979 revolution. I had read about Carlos Fonseca, Tomás Borge, Daniel Ortega, Dora Maria Tellez, and hundreds of others who participated in overthrowing Somoza. I wanted to hear their stories in person, and as a young student in my early 20s, I think a certain part of me wanted to absorb whatever revolutionary fervor they had left. Although my own ideology was still taking form, I found myself mesmerized by these individuals’ ability to overcome the seemingly insurmountable. These were the men and women who descended from the mountains and took over a nation.
My semester abroad began before I ever boarded the plane in Miami. Just prior to leaving the airport I met a woman from the cleaning staff who had fought with the Sandinistas in the 1970s. I remember being astonished that such a historic figure was working as a janitor in Miami. A few hours later, on the plane to Managua, I found myself sitting next to a Nicaraguan businessman who had fought for the U.S.-supported Contras in the 1980s. He explained how my paisanos (countrymen) had clandestinely shipped munitions into Honduras, even after the U.S. Congress prohibited such consignments in 1981. He laughed when he told me that they’d even sold cocaine to Ricky Ross to bankroll the Contra’s efforts.
It all seemed to ludicrous to believe, but I’ll never forget the way he described the Sandinistas. “They’re just a bunch of [expletive] commies,” he told me in a southern twang that he’d acquired from living in New Orleans for nearly two decades. The vitriolic tone in his voice stuck with me. After years of reflection, I realize now that the bitterness in this man’s voice was symbolic of a social tension that continues to lurk beneath the surface of Nicaraguan society.
As the plane approached Managua that afternoon, I stared out at the thousands of homes below us and thought about all the stories and anecdotes of the revolution that each one of them contained. In the days and weeks to come these narratives of the revolution came to life. Around every corner, there was a sign of the country’s insurgent past. Every other taxi driver had fought in the war; every businessman and his family had lived in Miami; and nearly everyone knew someone that had migrated to Costa Rica or the U.S. to escape the violence of the 1980s or the economic austerity of the 1990s.
Legacies of the revolution were embedded in nearly every corner of life, except one. The youth.
Young people I met wanted nothing to do with the revolution. They didn’t understand it, nor did they want to. Nearly everyone I encountered who was my age was decisively apolitical. The same revolution that provoked sentiments of pride and honor in the hearts of the thousands of people who participated in the insurrection incited sentiments of acrimony and mistrust in nearly everyone I met born after 1979.
“Me vale [I don’t care]!,” I heard young people say over and over again.
For them, the revolution was a family story—told over and over again in heroic detail—with which they were unable to identify.
“We were born into the revolution,” my friend El Negro told me toward the end of 2004. “As kids we learned about it in school and we participated in the marches against the empire [the U.S.]. But we also saw the revolution bury our older brothers, our uncles and fathers. We saw it divide our families. And then we saw the Sandinistas take everything they could in the famous piñata just before Doña Violeta [Chamorro] took over [in 1990]. They took houses, land, cars, money, and who knows what else. We came to realize that the Sandinistas who had remained in power were just as bad as the Liberals who they claimed we should hate. And then we suffered while our parents were laid off in the 1990s. You tell me, where’s the legacy of the revolution for people like me?”
The hopelessness that El Negro expressed to me in the early 2000s took hold of an entire generation of Nicaraguans. In a country where politicians openly used their positions to improve their own wellbeing, with little to no regard for the less fortunate, people like El Negro gave up on politics altogether. After realizing that electoral outcomes never seemed to line up with citizens’ demands, El Negro chose to vote with his feet, and left for the U.S. in search of a better life. Hundreds of thousands of his compatriots followed suit. Those who stayed behind have survived on a combination of unbelievable resourcefulness—along with remittances from abroad, which have emerged as Nicaragua’s principal social net.
In the meantime, the Sandinistas reorganized. Daniel Ortega dropped the military garb and began dressing in jeans and linen shifts. For official events, he began pulling on dark blazers and well-ironed shirts. His wife, Rosario Murillo rebranded the party with colorful new posters and campaign jingles set to classic Beatles’ hits like Let It Be. Ortega and Murillo left nothing to chance. They made a pact with their longtime political nemesis, Arnoldo Alemán; they pawned their souls to the Catholic church and repackaged themselves as the leaders of a new era. They were the colorful new faces of the new Sandinistas. They would bring prosperity to Nicaragua through a combination of reconciliation, peace, and Christian solidarity.
Against all odds, their strategy worked.
On November 5th, 2006, Ortega, the former guerilla fighter turned socialist businessman, narrowly defeated a divided opposition with 854,316 votes, or 38% of the electorate. Since then, he has adroitly centralized his power, taking nearly complete control of the national assembly, the court systems, and the electoral system. In 2011 Ortega won again, this time with 1,569,287 votes, or 62% of the electorate. Most recently, in 2016, he pulled in a nearly unbelievable 1,806,651 votes, or 72% of the electorate. After more than a decade in power, Ortega’s popularity seemed to continue to rise through the roof.
The first signs of popular discontent emerged from the electoral polls themselves. In 2011, 42% of the electorate stayed home on election day. Then, in 2016, more than 70% failed to turn up at the polls. But Liberals weren’t the only ones not turning out at the polls. By 2016 the abstentions represented an increasingly significant percentage of society, including many young former supporters of the Sandinista party. The message was clear. Ortega’s political machine was winning elections, but it wasn’t winning over the hearts and minds of citizens.
Lucho, who I’ve known since 2004 was among those who stayed home for the elections in 2016. When I met Lucho, he was in his teens and he was deeply involved in the Sandinista Youth party known as La Juventud Sandinista. His mother and father both participated in the revolution, and his uncle was killed by Contras. In his childhood home, where he and his wife still live today with their two kids, there is a photo of Lucho’s uncle holding an AK-47.
“I used to organize pro-government marches,” Lucho told me with a hint of shame on afternoon back in November of 2017. “I don’t regret it but I’ve changed. We’ve all changed.”
“Now I see the party in a different light. And so do thousands of others. The government has to listen to the young people. They can’t keep repeating the same thing over and over again. The youth want to participate in the future of this country and the Sandinista party as it is currently structured doesn’t allow for dissenting opinions,” he told me.
“I voted in 2006 for Ortega and again in 2011,” he told me. “But I didn’t vote in 2016. The election was a farce. There were no alternatives. There was no opposition.”
María Teresa Blandón, who is one of Nicaragua’s most outspoken feminists, once told me: “I come from the times of revolution, and I can honestly say that the current generation is asleep. In part, this is by design. The government uses a policy of confrontation with social movements, which represses alternative views.”
“But everything adds up. And nothing lasts forever. One day, the youth of this country are going to wake up and that’s when Ortega will fall,” she said prophetically toward the end of our conversation back in March of this year.
Blandón’s comments reminded me of something former presidential candidate and opposition leader Edmundo Jarquín told me in February when we sat down for an interview in his office in Managua.
“I grew up with an image of Sandino as a bandalero [bandit],” Edmundo told me. “My father was a diputado [representative] for Somoza. The party represented a certain stability in Nicaragua after so many years of occupation and civil war. And that’s what Ortega represents to a certain point today.”
Yet, despite his father’s position in the Somoza government, Edmundo told me that he was always taught to respect Sandino because he represented the consequence of a government that had distanced itself too far from the people’s will.
“The Nicaraguan government have a history of rising up in the face of injustice,” he told me.
Today, as I write this, a new generation of young people is awaking in Nicaragua. This very afternoon there is a march in honor of Ángel Gahona, the young journalist that was shot in the head in Bluefields last week. On Saturday there is a nondemoninatonal pilgrimage to the cathdetral. Not coincidently, the poster being circulated by the church includes an excerpt from Mathew 5:6, which reads:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
In Nicaragua, the torch of social justice has been passed along to a new generation of youth. Unlike los muchachos of 1979, they are not armed with AK-47s or basukas. Instead, they have smartphones and an insatiable desire for free speech, fair elections, and a seat at the table. They are los millennials, and while they remained dormant for nearly three decades, their voice is beginning to take form.
These new torchbearers are everywhere. The most vocal protests against the government began on the steps of the Central American University (UCA), and they’ve been sustained within the classrooms and halls of the Nicaraguan Polytechnic University (Upoli). These students have been at the epicenter of Nicaragua’s uprising from the beginning, but their impact has spread like wildfire. Nicaraguans around the world are calling for change.
Just yesterday, Mateo Jarquín Chamorro, who lives in Boston and is in the midst of finishing a doctorate in history at Harvard, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. Toward the end he wrote,
“The people on the streets have shown that their indifference has come to an end… Nicaragua will never be the same again. Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo should now face the fact that any realistic, sustainable solution to this crisis must contemplate the end of their pretensions to establish another dynastic dictatorship like the one that murdered my grandfather.”
Back in March, Mateo and I sat down for a cup of coffee at Casa del Café in Las Colinas. Mateo is Edmundo Jarqín’s son, and Pedro Jarquín Chamorro and Violeta Chamorro’s grandson. He told me that he was writing about the history of the Sandinista revolution from a regional perspective.
“I want to provide people with a vision of Nicaragua in which Nicaraguans have agency and are not simply depicted as puppets of the United States,” he told me. “My account is a story told from the inside. One that reveals Nicaraguans fighting to change Nicaragua. That’s the story I want to tell.”
As the winds of Nicaragua’s Tropical Spring continue to build strength, I get the sense that the social flurries from last week’s protests are quickly gathering speed. The action ebbs and flows. In the morning the streets are calm, but each afternoon the protesters reclaim the city’s pavement.
These young men and women are los millennials, and although they are the direct descendants of los muchachos, who ripped away the presidency from Somoza in 1979, their fight is distinct and their methods are unique. They are the protagonists of a civic insurrection that that has been driven by social media campaigns such as #SOSIndioMaís, #SOSINSS and #SOSNicaragua. Their immediate objective is to remove Ortega from power through the shear will of the people’s voice. However, I get the sense that these young Nicaraguans are rewriting the very history of their country. Someday, someone like Mateo Jarquín will tell their story, but in the meantime we have the privilege of watching them come to age before our eyes.